- At the U.N. Ocean Conference taking place this week in Lisbon, momentum has been building in support of a moratorium on deep-sea mining, an activity projected to have far-reaching consequences for marine ecosystems, biodiversity, and global fisheries.
- The Pacific island nation of Palau launched an alliance of countries that support a moratorium, which Fiji and Samoa subsequently joined.
- A global network of parliamentarians has also banded together to support a moratorium and to look for a legal way to enforce it.
- As things stand, deep-sea mining could begin a year from now, with the International Seabed Authority, the body tasked with regulating the activity, drawing up the rules that would allow mining to commence.
LISBON — Should we mine the seabed, a part of the world rich in resources, but less mapped than the surface of the moon? A growing number of politicians, scientists and conservationists are saying that we shouldn’t — at least, not until we fully understand the consequences of doing so.
At an event on June 27 at the U.N. Ocean Conference (UNOC) in Lisbon, Surangel Whipps Jr., the president of the Pacific island nation of Palau, took to the podium to announce that his nation was launching an alliance of countries pushing for a moratorium on deep-sea mining.
“Palau believes that in this instance, deep-sea mining should be discouraged to the greatest extent possible,” Whipps said to a packed room. “Deep-sea mining compromises the integrity of our ocean habitat that supports marine biodiversity and contributes to mitigating the impacts of climate change.”
Whipps was joined on stage by famous oceanographer Sylvia Earle, who said the risks of deep-sea mining should be the “headline issue … of our time.”
“There is no way that we should be going forward now, or maybe ever, with tearing up these systems that we don’t know how to put back together again,” Earle said. “The greatest discovery perhaps of the 20th century about the ocean was discovering the magnitude of our ignorance.”
At the launch of the new alliance, the Pacific island nations of Fiji and Samoa announced they would also be joining the coalition. The following day, Tuvalu and Guam expressed their support, although they have yet to formally join the alliance.
‘Different voices of concern’
Experts say they’re hopeful that others will come forward, if not this week at the UNOC, then in the weeks that follow.
Chile, for instance, recently called for a 15-year moratorium on deep-sea mining at the annual meeting of state parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) at the U.N. headquarters in New York, citing concerns about environmental damage and the lack of scientific data. However, Chile hasn’t yet joined the alliance either.
“There are different voices of concern who express their concern a little bit differently, but they’re all about slowing down because there’s no rush,” Jessica Battle, the lead on WWF’s deep-sea mining initiative, told Mongabay in an interview in Lisbon. “There really isn’t any rush.”
Sian Owen, the global coordinator for the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), a consortium of 90 international organizations working to protect the deep sea, said that while the alliance itself has no authority to force the International Seabed Authority (ISA) — the U.N.-linked agency charged with regulating deep-sea mining — to impose a moratorium, it does have the “authority of persuasion.”
“What this does, for the first time, is create a space where states and governments can come together and say, ‘Actually, we have some concerns about this idea of opening up a vast new extractive frontier in one of the last wildernesses on our planet,” Owen told Mongabay.
At a separate event at the UNOC on June 28, members of parliament and other leaders appealed to the global network of parliamentarians to sign a declaration that also calls for a moratorium. At the time of writing, the declaration had been signed by more than 70 individuals from 35 countries.
“On this issue of moratorium, we don’t see things moving fast enough,” Marie Toussaint, a member of the European Parliament who launched the declaration, told Mongabay in Lisbon. “But we also have to acknowledge the fact that it’s been only one year since the requests for exploiting the seabed [have been] presented.”
Toussaint added that she and other allies are currently working on a legal framework that would oblige the ISA to carry out the moratorium that many are calling for.
‘Potential sources of metal supply’
Interest in deep-sea mining began in the 1970s, then picked up again in the last two decades as nations explored the possibility of mining the seabed in their own coastal waters as well as the high seas, the areas of the ocean to which no country can claim jurisdiction. Then, in June 2021, the Pacific island nation of Nauru triggered an obscure rule embedded in the UNCLOS that requests the ISA to approve a plan for exploitation with whatever rules are currently in place within two years. That means that deep-sea mining could be set into motion in about a year’s time from now.
The company positioned to benefit the most from this early start is Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI), a subsidiary of the Canadian-owned The Metals Company (TMC), formerly known Deep Green. TMC, which is a publicly traded company listed on the NASDAQ exchange, has long argued that it is necessary to mine the deep sea to procure minerals like cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese to help the world transition to electric cars and other renewable technologies. These minerals can be found in abundance in the ocean’s abyssal plains in the form of potato-sized rock concretions known as polymetallic nodules. TMC and other companies have their eyes on a part of the ocean known as the Clarion Clipperton Zone in the Pacific Ocean, roughly between Hawai‘i and Mexico, which harbors vast quantities of these nodules.
“Expected metal shortages will derail the energy transition,” Gerard Barron, TMC’s chairman and CEO, who was not at the UNOC, told Mongabay in an email. “We owe it to the planet and people living on it, to stay calm, consider all potential sources of metal supply and compare the lifecycle impacts of our options on a project-by-project basis. Indeed, as the world’s largest source of battery metals, it would be unethical not to fully explore nodules as a solution.”
Many industrialized nations are working toward a swift transition to electric vehicles. For instance, the European Union has just approved a plan to end the sale of combustion-engine vehicles by 2035 in a bid to lower its carbon emissions. In the U.S., the Biden administration also announced in 2021 a plan for half of all new vehicles sold to be electric by 2030.
While there is increased demand for electric cars, WWF’s Battle said renewable technologies are quickly evolving to not require minerals sourced from the deep sea, with many innovators preferring to source metals from the circulator economy — that is, recycling it from electronic waste.
“This move to stop this industry from happening … will also accelerate the move to go circular because of the fact that there will be less new minerals coming into circulation, and then the economy is forced to go circular,” Battle said. “If you put more new resources in, there’s less incentive to think about how you can use existing resources.”
Several large car companies, including BMW, Renault, Volkswagen, and Volvo Group, have already pledged not to use any metals from the seabed.
Critics of deep-sea mining also say that sourcing metals from the deep sea could destroy ecosystems that have taken millions of years to form, irreversibly harm marine biodiversity, and disrupt global fisheries.
‘An uphill battle’
The ISA, the body mandated to both protect the seabed and ensure equal access to its resources, seems to support the launch of deep-sea mining in international waters. (The body does not, however, have authority over mining in states’ territorial waters.) When Nauru triggered the two-year rule, the ISA scheduled a series of meetings to help finalize the mining code that would allow exploitation to begin, despite a slew of warnings from scientists and other experts about the dangers associated with mining.
Critics of the ISA also say the body is skewed toward mining rather than conservation, and for that reason, they say the ISA is “not fit for purpose.” Concerns have also been raised about the lack of transparency of the ISA’s activities and decision-making processes.
“The ISA is an institution that is very biased towards mining,” Owen said. “So it’s an uphill battle.”
Yet the ISA presents a position of environmental stewardship. Michael Lodge, the ISA’s secretary-general, speaking at an interactive dialogue at an official event at the U.N. Ocean Conference on June 29, said the ISA would “regulate all related activities and in doing so applying the highest possible environmental standards using the best scientific evidence to create global standards which will form a benchmark for the rest of the world.”
Another speaker at the dialogue, Alex Herman, the seabed minerals commissioner of the Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority, the group overseeing future mining in that territory’s waters, said seabed mining offers many “untapped possibilities.” She also appealed to other Pacific nations to unite in support of this activity.
“Our Pacific leaders have long held our commitment to working together,” Herman said. “Moving forward as a collective has proven time and again that we can resolve the most complex issues through open and frank discussions.”
‘A flood of support’
While deep-sea mining has not yet begun, the ISA is proceeding with its plans to approve a set of rules that would allow it to begin. At the same time, conservationists say support for a moratorium is gaining strength.
“I’m very hopeful,” Owen said. “I feel like we’ve got a momentum, it’s picking up speed, and there’s this collective sense of urgency of learning from the past, of not making the same mistakes, of taking nature for granted, and of actually evaluating the ecosystem functions and valuing what the ocean in a healthy state brings to us.”
Phil McCabe, the Pacific liaison for the DSCC, said he believes there’s been a “seismic shift in the political landscape” in terms of support for a moratorium at the UNOC.
“We are in dialogue with a number of other states [and] it’s all tracking towards a flood of support behind this moratorium, not only from the Pacific [but from] Latin American countries, European countries,” McCabe told Mongabay in Lisbon.
He added: “We all know what the right thing is here.”
Update 7/1/22: At a side event at the UNOC on June 30, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a stop on deep-sea mining, saying that “we have to create the legal framework to stop high seas mining and not to allow new activities that endanger ecosystems.” It is not yet clear if France will join the alliance of countries calling for a moratorium.
Clarification 7/1/22: This story was updated to clarify that the ISA does not have authority over mining in states’ territorial waters and that deep sea mining has not yet begun in the Cook Islands.
Banner image: A red jellyfish seemingly floating upside down in deep sea. Image by NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program via Flickr.
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.
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